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Toronto Maple Leafs' Jay Rosehill fights with Florida Panthers' Krystofer Barch during the first period in Sunrise, Florida, March 13, 2012. (Rhona Wise/Reuters/Rhona Wise/Reuters)
Toronto Maple Leafs' Jay Rosehill fights with Florida Panthers' Krystofer Barch during the first period in Sunrise, Florida, March 13, 2012. (Rhona Wise/Reuters/Rhona Wise/Reuters)

Panthers 5, Maple Leafs 2

Leafs fall in Florida as slide to bottom of league continues Add to ...

Brian Burke, savvy Harvard grad that he is, was careful to include an “if” in the statement.

Not that it much matters any more given the Toronto Maple Leafs’ dire situation.

But there he was on Tuesday afternoon, hours before his team took the ice, standing in the hot Florida sun and putting a brave face on what has become yet another lost season.

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It’s not over, Burke said – and even when it is, he doesn’t want the Leafs to throw in the towel.

“If you’re eliminated, your job is still to be a factor in the race,” Burke said, responding to a question about the significance of the Leafs’ final 13 games. “And beat teams and affect the outcomes for other teams. Nothing’s going to change for us. We’re going to try to win every game.”

“Try” being the operative word at this point – even if, based on their recent play, that will be debated in some circles.

The Leafs may have tried on this night, but the result was far from enough, as they lost 5-2 to the Florida Panthers to fall to a horrific 2-13-2 in their past 17 games.

That stretch has taken Toronto from sixth in the East to sixth last in the league, led to the firing of coach Ron Wilson and the virtual certainty they will miss the postseason for the fourth consecutive year under Burke.

The latest loss moves the Panthers to 11 points ahead of the Leafs, further cementing the fact that Florida will soon leave them by their lonesome as the only team not to make the big dance since the 2004-05 lockout.

Playoff tickets are for sale here in sunny Sunrise.

It’s ugly stuff, all of it, and perhaps the most confounding part of it all is that it hasn’t been any one aspect of Toronto’s game that has sunk its season over this stretch of futility.

Consider that, under new coach Randy Carlyle, Jonas Gustavsson posted a terrific .920 save percentage in five consecutive starts – four of which were losses because of his teammates’ inability to find the back of the net.

Consider, too, that the Toronto penalty kill – long a bottom feeder – has been excellent for more than 30 games.

The losses, however, keep piling up, even if in the wreckage Burke says he sees progress under his new bench boss.

“We’re not giving up the golden opportunities that we did,” Burke said, speaking at a luxury resort in nearby Boca Raton during the NHL’s GM meetings. “And that’s not a knock at Ronny, but our D-zone coverage seems to be a little more solid and maybe that’s why the goaltending has been better, too.”

Maybe so, and maybe starting next season, that’ll be held up as a plus.

For now, though, Toronto has simply exchanged one problem for another, with its poor defensive play having inexplicably become an inability to put the puck in the net.

This is a team that has scored just 11 goals in the first six games with Carlyle behind the bench, looking little like the high-flying group that had been one of the NHL’s highest scoring earlier in the year.

On this night, the Panthers were on the board first and second, getting a goal 59 seconds in from Sean Bergenheim when he swatted a rebound past James Reimer.

"I thought he was very nervous early," Carlyle said of Reimer's first turn in goal under his watch.

Florida then went up 2-0 late in the second, as defenceman Jason Garrison deftly tipped a point shot on goal.

Toronto managed to claw back to within one – ending a ridiculous 196-minute stretch without a goal – as Tyler Bozak went to the net hard and was rewarded with his 15th of the year.

There was far too little of that overall, however, with the Leafs attempting to pass their way up the ice and showing hardly any resemblance to a team trying to “affect the outcomes” of clubs on the playoff bubble.

The Panthers proved that much in the third period, as they took advantage of two careless Toronto penalties by pumping two power play markers past Reimer to put the game out of reach.

That collapse, more than anything, was what irked Carlyle after the game, and the coach apparently tore a strip off his team in his postgame address.

“My message was we self destructed,” Carlyle said. "They have to be realistic about what we did. We can’t kid ourselves - with a performance like that, we are held accountable.”

"He said what needed to be said," defenceman John-Michael Liles said. "He was pretty blunt about it. That's about it."

The only question left to ponder is how much uglier can it get for a team that has found just about every way possible to lose during one of the worst five week slides in franchise history?

Because that’s what this is, even if it has a silver lining of a high draft pick on the way.

"It's a tough stretch," said Liles, who was part of a 6-28-2 collapse by the Colorado Avalanche late last season.

"Right now, we just can't seem to get that bounce we need. When you're going through a stretch like this, you grip the stick too tight and overthink the game sometimes."

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